Today is the 219th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights ? the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Bill of Rights Day should be the preeminent Anti-Politician Day on the American calendar. Instead, it has become simply another pretext for rulers to delude the ruled.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “A Bill of Rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth … and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.” Yet, some of the Founding Fathers ? such as Alexander Hamilton ? fought tooth-and-nail against codifying any limit on politicians’ power. And the second president ? John Adams ? did all that he could to destroy any restraints on the feds’ power to suppress criticism of the government.
President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the first Bill of Rights Day, which occurred on December 15, 1941 ? a few days after FDR’s dream came true and the United States was simultaneously at war with Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. FDR called the Bill of Rights “the great American charter of personal liberty and human dignity,” but proceeded to label the rights “privileges” and then listed only “privileges” contained in the First Amendment. FDR then asserted that “free schools” could not exist without the Bill of Rights, though there was nothing about education in the first 10 amendments. The Second World War provided a blank check for FDR to seize almost boundless power at home and abroad, and he never let the Constitution stand in his way.
Subsequent politicians have done their best to make Americans view the Bill of Rights as simply another government handout. President Bill Clinton, in an April 19, 1994, television interview, declared, “When we got organized as a country and we wrote a fairly radical Constitution with a radical Bill of Rights, giving a radical amount of individual freedom to Americans, it was assumed that the Americans who had that freedom would use it responsibly…. When personal freedom’s being abused, you have to move to limit it.”
The Bill of Rights did not give freedom to Americans; instead, the Bill of Rights expressly prohibited the government from violating pre-existing rights of the people. The Bill of Rights was not “radical” according to the beliefs of Americans of that era; instead, it codified rights both long recognized in English common law or that had been carved out over centuries of resistance to English tyranny. The Founding Fathers had difficulty getting the Constitution approved in many states not because it was “radical” in protecting people’s rights from the government ? but because it was perceived as concentrating too much power within the federal government to violate the rights of the people.
President Obama is upholding the tradition of invoking the Bill of Rights to muddle Americans’ political thinking. When he formally proclaimed Bill of Rights Day last December, he declared that “fidelity to our fundamental values is one of America’s greatest strengths…. As Americans, we must keep striving to live up to our founding ideals.” Obama made this declaration after signaling that all the high-ranking Bush administration officials who authorized torture and other war crimes would face no federal prosecution.
In his Bill of Rights Day proclamation this year, Obama declared: “The United States will always speak for those who are voiceless, defend those who are oppressed, and bear witness to those who want nothing more than to exercise their universal human rights. Our Bill of Rights protects these fundamental values at home, and guides our actions” abroad.
In the same season that Obama is making such declarations, his administration is also insisting that it is entitled to kill Americans without any due process, without any judicial proceedings, simply because some government officials suspect those Americans are “involved” with terrorist groups.
Presidents and members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution ? and thus to respect the rights recognized and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Insofar as the feds trample the Bill of Rights, the government is illegitimate. Insofar as the government perennially violates the Bill of Rights, it becomes an aggressor against the American people.
At this point, what we really need is a constitutional amendment to require the federal government obey the Constitution. As long as the rulers are permitted to scorn the rightful limits on their power, our political system consists of little more than elective dictatorship.
Americans need to remember Bill of Rights Day but for the proper reason. Americans must recognize that the government poses the greatest peril to their liberties. December 15 is the day to stop and count the ways that politicians are ravaging your rights ? and to take action to turn the tide against Leviathan.
JAMES BOVARD serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation and is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books.